Sgt. Noel Rodriguez, a team leader with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, communicates while on patrol in Afghanistan. Infantrymen who took a bonus to deploy with their units now have extra time to earn promotion before up-or-out limits are enforced. (Sgt. Logan W. Pierce/Marine Corps)
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New revisions to the Marine Corps’ up-or-out rules will create winners and losers in the enlisted ranks for those who want to remain in uniform.
The winners include Marine infantry sergeants who have taken financial incentives to deploy repeatedly to Afghanistan to help lead their units, rather than take a special duty assignment. Manpower officials can now grant waivers that would allow them to serve beyond the 10-year time-in-service cap, established by the Enlisted Career Force Controls Program,. That will give some a chance to complete an SDA and remain competitive for promotion.
Not so lucky are Marines who have prior service in any branch of the military and sergeants who have been passed over once for promotion. Many will find that their time in uniform could become shorter.
While the limits on the maximum number of years Marines may serve at a particular rank before being forced to leave remain unchanged for fiscal 2014, the three policy revisions have altered the rules on how those limits are applied, according to manpower officials.
The changes were detailed in Marine administrative message 585/13, signed Nov. 1, which outlines the Enlisted Career Force Controls Program.
The revision that is likely to affect Marines in the most ranksis a change to how prior service in other branches of the military counts toward Marine up-or-out limits, commonly called ECFCs.
Until this year, service in branches outside the Marine Corps did not count toward up-or-out limits. For example, a Marine sergeant who had first served four years in the Army, then took a break in service before joining the Corps, could remain in uniform for 10 years without picking up staff sergeant before being involuntarily separated.
“Marines with prior service in another military branch will only count active duty Marine Corps service toward completed years of service,” according to MARADMIN 548/13, released in October 2012, which announced last year’s ECFC details.
But that language was dropped from the ECFC Program. Under the new rules, those four years in the Army would count, giving that sergeant just six years in the Marine Corps to pick up staff sergeant before hitting the limit.
The change brings Marine Corps policy more closely in line with the other services, said Maj. Shawn Haney, a Manpower and Reserve Affairs spokeswoman at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
Stricter rules for sergeants
While the ECFC limit for sergeants is 10 years, those who are non-competitive may no longer make it that long in uniform.
In years past, sergeants who were passed once by a selection board were granted extensions to serve up to 10 years. As a result, they were likely to get a second look by a board. Extensions can still be granted, but that is no longer automatic. The policy has been revised to say that extensions “may be” granted, rather than “will be” granted.
“This is to give [the enlisted assignments branch] the latitude to determine whether a Marine should be given additional service for another promotion consideration based on the Marine’s record and the commander’s recommendation for further service,” Haney said.
In other words, if a Marine has been passed over once and a review of his record and his commander’s assessment show he will remain non-competitive, hewill be sent home at the end of his their contract.
This is not the first time sergeants have been targeted for separation since the Marine Corps began reducing personnel from a wartime high of 202,000 Marines. Facing increasingly severe drawdown targets, Marine leaders initially planned to shrink the Corps to 186,800, then 182,100 personnel. Now, they are aiming for 174,000 Marines by the end of 2016.
The expanding drawdown, coupled with backlogs at some ranks that slowed promotions for more junior Marines, forced decision-makers to take a hard look at which Marines were being permitted to stick around and for how long. Senior enlisted leaders, for example, are no longer granted extensions beyond 30 years of service to complete a final choice assignment.
Sergeants and staff sergeants were among the ranks with frustrating promotion prospects. In 2011, the Corps reduced the up-or-out limit for sergeants from 13 years to just 10. The change in policy sped how quickly sergeants went before selection boards. That was good news for the most competitive noncommissioned officers wanting to pick up staff sergeant, but it also sped the departure of those who were passed for promotion.
The slow promotion of sergeants, particularly in overmanned military occupational specialties, was compounded by a glut of staff sergeants who — like majors on the officer side — were being allowed to stick around to retirement, barring any career-ending criminal behavior. The policy was recently changed for majors; they must get promoted if they want to retire from the Corps. While similar changes have not been made for staff sergeants, manpower officials have studied the idea.
Commandant Gen. Jim Amos has said that preserving the informal policy to protect staff sergeants from separation is part of his plan to “keep faith with Marines” and ease the burden on families, many of whom have endured multiple deployments. But it has resulted in too many staff sergeants and negatively affected promotion opportunities for more juniopr Marines.
With more non-competitive sergeants being culled from the ranks, and efforts underway to entice staff sergeants out of uniform with early retirement financial incentives, upward mobility should hold steady of not improve.
The ECFC policy revisions will allow more infantry noncommissioned officers who accepted financial incentives in return for multiple deployments in Afghanistan to remain in uniform.
Manpower officials can now grant waivers to the up-or-out limits for Marines who accepted the incentive, giving them sufficient time to complete a Special Duty Assignment and improve their competitiveness in the promotion process.
The Infantry Battalion NCO Initiative, popularly known as the OpFor Kicker, offered corporals and sergeants up to $25,000 to remain with their deploying units for an additional 24 months.
The initiative was designed to retain mature and experienced small-unit leaders in Afghanistan, where Marines were operating across large areas and junior leaders were assuming great responsibility.
But staying in the fleet for more deployments meant they had to delay taking an SDA and put them at risk of hitting their up-or-out limit before they got one under their belt. That’s a potential career ender.
In fact, during the 2012 sergeants major symposium, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett, cautioned career-minded Marines against taking the incentive.
“Long gone are the days when multiple deployments [would] get you promoted,” Barrett, the commandant’s senior enlisted adviser, told a room full of sergeants major and master gunnery sergeants in late July 2012 “If you are not well-rounded, you will not get promoted.”
To be competitive a Marine needs deployment experience, but also time as a recruiter, combat instructor, drill instructor, Marine security guard or member of the Marine Corps security forces. Selection boards are directed to consider Marines who have completed those jobs as “highly qualified.”
,Meanwhile, Gen. Jim Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, was stressing the importance of retaining experienced squad leaders in the fleet.
The recent change in policy aims to avoid penalizing Marines who were asked to help the Marines’ war effort by taking the OpFor Kicker, but also told about the importance of completing an SDA to remain competitive for promotion.
First-look promotion forecast
It is not yet known how many allocations there will be this year for promotion to staff sergeant and gunnery sergeant,or what the promotion opportunity — the percentage of Marines screened by a selection board who are tapped to pick up rank — will be for each MOS.
Announcements of allocations for most selection boards are still months away. The gunnery sergeant board will convene in late April, while the staff sergeant board will convene in mid-July.
Last year, however, a positive trend was seen in some MOSs that were closed to promotion — or nearly closed — in the recent past. For example, staff sergeants in the 0369 infantry unit leader MOS had a chance to move up to gunnery sergeant in 2012, an opportunity denied them the year before. The favorable trend is expected to hold, despite the deeper than anticipated manpower cuts, which will take the Marine Corps to 174,000 personnel instead of 182,100.
Part of the reason for that is the service will have an additional year to hit its drawdown target, meaning manpower officials don’t have to reach a steady state until the end of 2017.As a result, manpower planners have said they do not anticipate instituting harsher drawdown measures and the positive trends in promotion opportunities will likely continue.
At higher ranks, promotion allocations have increased. Allocations for the sergeant major through master sergeant selection board were announced in late August, and the board convened Oct. 30. In all 277 allocations were made for sergeant majors and master gunnery sergeants compared to 256 last year, while there are 694 allocations for first sergeant and master sergeant, compared to 651 a year ago.